By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY
NASHVILLE — By all accounts, the CMA Music Festival is holding up pretty well at age 40.
|Brad Paisley performs during CMA Music Festival
at Nashville's LP Field. (Wade Payne/AP)
From the buzz surrounding American Idol final duo of Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina to the dozens of up-and-coming artists getting a chance to showcase their talents on stages around Nashville, country music’s future continues to unfold in front of appreciative, if warm, crowds.
Thursday continued a string of a dozen straight days of temperatures above 90 degrees in Middle Tennessee, and traveling from stage to stage to check out new music meant getting your sweat on, whether you wanted to or not.
Ready for the ride: Many artists use CMA Fest and the opportunity to connect with fans as a way to celebrate career achievements, but Keith Urban used the platform to look ahead, specifically at his new Get Closer tour, which launches June 16 in Biloxi, Miss. Urban and his band invited several hundred fans and industry onlookers to get an 11-song glimpse of the new production at Municipal Auditorium, where they’ve been rehearsing the show. The new stage set, including a huge circular projection screen and roller-coaster-like rigging above and in back of the stage with rolling lights that provide tremendous visual impact, is a far cry from Urban’s club days coming up. “We had no money, no budget, but I went to the hardware store and bought these four sections of prefabbed white picket fence,” Urban says. “I got wire and hung them from the ceiling of the stage at unusual angles and then put lights through them, just to make them a set piece. So to go from that, to be able to put this kind of thing together, there’s no shortage of gratitude for that.”
Slow burn: Count Jason Aldean among those well aware of and thankful for the slow build of a superstar-level career. The Georgia native ratcheted his game up over the past year, and with high-profile collaborations with Kelly Clarkson on "Don’t You Wanna Stay" and his CMT Music Awards turn with rapper Ludacris on current single "Dirt Road Anthem," Aldean appreciates the new doors opening up for him. “It’s been such a gradual climb that’s it’s given me time to adjust to everything and be able to enjoy it and take it in,” Aldean says. “It’s cool that those kinds of people dig what you do enough to want to come in and be a part of it. I love trying new stuff, whether it be with somebody like Luda or Kelly Clarkson or Randy Owen from Alabama. And it’s a lot easier to make it happen if they’re taking your call.”
Taking it all in: Singer/songwriter Sonia Leigh is in the midst of one of those decade-long “overnight success” scenarios that make for great stories. While currently identified as a Zac Brown Band protégé, whom she joined on the main stage at LP Field Thursday night, Leigh’s been kicking around for as a performer since the late ’90s. Sporting both a gritty attitude and winning smile, Leigh was completely open about taking in everything her first CMA Fest experience was presenting. “I’m excited and blessed and bewildered to be here,” Leigh says. “Alan (Jackson) — and I learned to play guitar listening to his songs — came up and gave me a hug at soundcheck and told me he liked my record, and that is such …” She pauses. “I might cry. I’m really hoping to just get out there and kick some butt and rock the crowd and show these people that I’m here to rock ‘n’ roll and entertain them. I’m excited to be here.”
Leaving off the parentheses: Sometimes there’s danger in declarative statements when it comes to popular music. Brad Paisley knew there was risk in titling an album This Is Country Music, but cautions that in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion — namely, his. “I was self-conscious about making sure that if I’m going to call it This Is Country Music that it felt like it is,” Paisley says of his newest collection of songs, including the current single "Old Alabama," which reunites members of the seminal band Alabama. “I didn’t say ‘This is only country music,’ or ‘This was country music’ or ‘This will be country music.’ It’s more this is what it is, for me. That’s sort of the parentheses that’s not officially on the title … ‘For Me.’ It wouldn’t have been nearly as cool an album title that way, but it is implied for me.”
Drawing the boundaries: From very early on in her career, Sara Evans has been adamant about respecting the two different sides of her life: artist vs. wife and mom. “It’s not so much a separation of the two as it is always making sure the kids come first and making sure that I’m a hands-on mom,” Evans says of her blended family of seven kids with husband Jay Barker. “I say ‘no’ to a lot of things just to make sure they’re not suffering in any way, shape or form because of my career. This has been a rebuilding year for me as an artist, and I’ve had to work three times as much as I normally do, but they’ve handled it really well and we’re getting back to the normal routine of the career.” And while the kids love hearing Mom on the radio, especially with new single "A Little Bit Stronger," Evans says they haven’t yet gotten to the point where they’re weighing in on her song choices. “They’ve always been around it, it’s not a big deal to them,” she says. “Right now, they just love everything I do. Maybe it’ll be different when they get older.”
Generations collide? World-class guitar-slinger Steve Wariner found his focus a little split on Thursday. He faced a busy day with an appearance for the fundraising arm of the Grand Ole Opry, the Opry Trust Fund, as well as appearing on the bill at LP Field, where he celebrated the set of multitalented artists that have charged to the forefront of country music. “I love it that there are a lot of artists that are the triple-threats: the writer, the singer and the musicians,” Wariner says. “To see a guy like Brad (Paisley), who I’ve known since he was about 13, have this kind of impact is awesome.” But earlier in the day, Wariner’s mind was 60-odd miles south of Nashville, where his son Ross’ band Uncle Skeleton was one of the acts opening Bonnaroo, having won a contest sponsored by performance rights organization BMI for a slot at that festival. “He took 15 pieces to Bonnaroo,” Wariner says of his progeny’s electronica-infused prog-punk collective. “I saw some video clips and they absolutely tore it up.”